As London begins to recover and heal from this week’s latest terror incident two days ago, I was reminded of an earlier terrorist act directed against the LGBT community in that city. In April 1999, a neo-Nazi activated a nail bomb in the Admiral Duncan Pub, in Soho, London’s gay neighborhood. Three people were killed then.
That act of terror inspired the local Catholic LGBT community to initiate a pastoral program to the LGBT community. A priest who supported this initiative was recently interviewed by Islington Now, a London neighborhood news outlet, telling how a terror act inspired pastoral care.
Msgr. Seamus O’Boyle of the Diocese of Westminster (London) told the newspaper:
“After the pub bombing in Soho where people got killed, there was a group of gay Catholic men and women who wanted somewhere to pray. . . .They started gathering together in an Anglican church to have Catholic Mass. That was a bit of an anomaly really, to put it mildly.”
Eight years later Mgr O’Boyle was Vicar General, a senior position in the Church which made him responsible for every priest in London. He had an opportunity to do something.
What O’Boyle did was welcome the LGBT Catholic group to use a Catholic parish in the Soho neighborhood for their twice-a-month Masses. O’Boyle recalled:
“The move was to try and make sure this was happening in a Catholic parish instead, and that it was open to everyone.
“We looked for a church and it was decided that we would use Our Lady of the Assumption on Warwick Street in Soho. I was appointed as the parish priest so I was responsible for what went on, in the sense of having an oversight of what was going on there.”
He remembered both the beauty of the welcome and the challenge of criticism from ultra-conservative Catholic protestors who showed up frequently outside the Church:
“It was a wonderful thing to be able to reach out to that community. It was a very hurt community by the Church, and yet there they were wanting to be part of it. I think we did a very good thing by allowing that to happen, but others didn’t feel that way.
“More traditional Catholics didn’t like it much. There was a group who used to meet outside and protest, saying the rosary. It was just horrendous, really. And then writing every five minutes to Rome to tell them that we were doing this atrocious thing. All kinds of ministry of disinformation, it was awful.
“Sometimes the group didn’t help by reacting in a bad way to some of the criticism and trying to reign them in a bit was not always easy. The group meeting outside was always invited in, you know, ‘come in and see that we’ve not got two heads’. “
The witness of the LGBT Catholics and allies who showed up for liturgy, especially in the face of protesters at the church door, inspired O’Boyle:
“To go to a Mass on a Sunday evening and have 150 people there who wanted to be there and participate in that way was just extraordinary.”
[Editor’s Note: I had the privilege of worshipping with this community in 2012 when I was in London for World Pride. You can read my report on my visit to the Mass by clicking here.]
Unfortunately, part of the article incorrectly describes the 2013 decision by Archbishop Vincent Nichols to move the Mass from the Soho neighborhood to a Jesuit parish in the nearby Mayfair section of the city. While there may have been some pressure on him to end the Masses, as the article states, Nichols took the opportunity to help the LGBT Mass community to become more integrated into parish life, instead of being isolated from the larger body of the faithful.
Instead of abandoning the LGBT group to Jesuit pastoral care, as the article implies, Nichols has remained very close to the community. Very soon after their move to the Farm Street parish, he visited the church to officially welcome them. Indeed, he visited the group to preside at Mass in 2015, and made a call to other bishops in England and Wales to expand pastoral outreach to the LGBT community. When Nichols was made a cardinal by Pope Francis in 2014, some commenters suggested that his LGBT pastoral outreach was a determining factor in his elevation.
O’Boyle has great optimism for the relationship between the Church and the LGBT community, due mostly to what he sees as positive steps taken by Pope Francis. O’Boyle stated:
“Pope Francis has given people hope that the church doesn’t seem quite so judgemental or dictatorial about things. . . .
“He’s trying to modernise the church but he’s up against it. He needs to do it, which I think is why he’s right for his time.
“He doesn’t care what he does really which is great – he’s the Pope isn’t he? He can do what he likes.
“I think there are those who would like to stop him doing what he’s doing – the establishment would. Centuries-old structures of bureaucracy are not easy to break down.
“But I think he’s been a breath of fresh air for the Church.”
Catholic London’s outreach to the LGBT community is a great model for other dioceses to emulate. It is amazing that such a jewel arose from the ruins of a terrorist act. We pray with all Londoners this week as they stare down terror once again. And we remember that when terror struck the LGBT community in the U.S. last summer in Orlando, the Farm Street community was one of the first Catholic groups to pray in solidarity with the victims and survivors.
–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry, March 24, 2017
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